July 27, 2010 — When Justice Charles Smith stepped down from the Washington state Supreme Court six years ago, Jim Johnson ran for the job largely to bring balance to the court, he says.
That’s the same reason Tacoma attorney Stan Rumbaugh now gives for challenging Johnson in his first bid for re-election.
Balance is in the eyes of the beholder, it seems, especially in the kind of political contest in which candidates traditionally shun any discernable ideological leanings.
Let’s be clear. Johnson’s idea of an appropriate midpoint is somewhere toward the right end of the spectrum; Rumbaugh’s toward the left. It would be an oversimplification to say business likes Johnson and labor likes Rumbaugh, but there’s a measure of truth in it, as reflected in their endorsements and contributions.
That’s not to say either man would be unfair in his application of the state and U.S. constitutions or that he is beholden to the interests that have aligned themselves behind him.
Unfortunately, that’s the picture Rumbaugh has painted in his campaign, asserting that Johnson is “repaying” campaign backers by “repeatedly siding with their positions.”
That’s unfair. Before he was on the court, Johnson was a skilled lawyer, highly visible, helping to write initiatives and battling for them in court. He was an ally of anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman and the Washington State Grange. Now as then, his reading of the constitutions reveals strong recognition of private property rights, open government and the First Amendment.
We never expect to agree with every opinion handed down by any Supreme Court justice, but we appreciate the guidance such decisions provide for elected legislators whose proper job it is to enact laws that can survive judicial inspection.
In his six years on the job, Johnson has won the trust of fellow justices Tom Chambers, Susan Owens, Charles Johnson and Gerry Alexander – all now endorsing him from their positions to his political left. Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic state Auditor Brian Sontag, both strong defenders of the state’s open public records law, have endorsed him, too.
To win his initial 2004 race, Johnson had to prevail over a strong field. One of his three rivals from that year now sits on the state Court of Appeals. Another, Mary Fairhurst, is now one of his fellow justices.
In the ensuing years, he’s done the solid job that voters could have expected from his well publicized activities. Johnson is a proven candidate who has earned a second term.
July 28, 2010 — Let’s state up front that Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders is exasperating, which is why the race for Position 6 on the Washington state Supreme Court is so interesting.
If he were vying for an ethics position, he would be a questionable candidate. He was officially admonished in 2005 for touring the McNeil Island facility for sexual predators when some of the inmates had open cases. He failed to disclose his personal interest in a public records case, which caused the Supreme Court to withdraw an important ruling. Long ago, he showed up at an anti-abortion rally.
If he were vying for a diplomat’s position, he would be a questionable candidate. At a black-tie dinner hosted by the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C., he made a scene by yelling “tyrant” at then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
If his libertarian viewpoint represented the majority opinion of the court, we would balk at an endorsement. But his views are iconoclastic, and his contributions are unique. His passionate dissents force the other justices to dig deeper as they research and write their rulings. He makes sure that the state Constitution is represented. He zealously defends individual rights.
Though he is often in the minority – and sometimes alone – he helps strengthen the rulings that will ultimately affect society. He bucks conservatives on tough-on-crime cases. He frustrates liberals when it comes to regulations. He should delight anyone who wants open government.
He is labeled as “pro-crime” by some, but that misses the point. He is guarding individual rights, which are quite expansive under the state Constitution. He is labeled “pro-business” by others, but what he’s really doing is guarding property rights.
We don’t always agree with him, but we know he is taking a principled stand.
He has two opponents, Charles Wiggins, a former Court of Appeals judge, and Bryan Chuschcoff, a Pierce County Superior Court judge. Both point to Sanders’ tendency to side with criminal defendants. Both point to his lapses outside the court. But neither would add an important dynamic to the nine-person panel. They would most likely echo the views that already enjoy the support of the majority of the court. Neither is likely to drift from the mainstream.
Even in dissent, it is important for the court to have a voice that reflects a different way of thinking. This serves to sharpen the opinions that will rule the day. No doubt, Sanders is exasperating, but he is also smart, articulate and performs an important role. The court would be weaker without him.
For this reason, he has earned another term on the bench.
July 29, 2010 — Two seasoned lawyers with limited judicial experience are competing for a seat on one of the state’s most important courts, the state Court of Appeals, Division III.
Laurel Siddoway holds the job now, having been appointed to it in March by Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Her opponent is attorney Harvey Dunham, who once was a judge pro tem and briefly an appointed judge in Spokane County District Court, dealing with misdemeanors and minor civil cases.
The Court of Appeals is the place where dissatisfied parties can go if they think the trial court let them down. Washington law allows citizens that option. Whether a case goes further is up to the Supreme Court – and it turns down most such requests. Therefore, most Court of Appeals decisions stand.
Such a job calls for keen legal knowledge, broad experience and raw intelligence. Without a substantial, relevant record against which to measure such qualities, it’s necessary to rely on common sense as well as the wisdom of others who have specialized insight about the work and the candidates.
What do we know about Dunham and Siddoway? We know that he’s a Republican who belongs to the National Rifle Association and the American Legion, and she’s a Democrat who supports the American Civil Liberties Union – factors that say something about their politics and personalities but nothing about their legal ability.
We know that Siddoway asked for an evaluation of the two of them by the Spokane County Bar Association, but Dunham declined. We know that she has fared well when inspected by her peers and he has not.
Dunham’s stint on the District Court was possible because county commissioners, having created their own evaluation panel instead of relying on the bar association, turned their noses up at the list of five recommended candidates and chose Dunham, who hadn’t made the list.
We know that while Siddoway didn’t finish at the top of bar members’ ranking of the eight candidates who sought the governor’s appointment, she did rate high – and is now being endorsed by four of the other seven.
We know that Dunham’s most recognizable endorsements are from Republican legislators and county commissioners in Division III’s six counties. Siddoway, meanwhile, has the backing of three Supreme Court justices, 14 current or past Court of Appeals judges, 26 current or past trial court judges and more than 100 citizens, including several Republicans, one of them a past county GOP chairman.
In Dunham’s favor, he has dealt with more criminal cases, the majority of the Court of Appeals’ load. Siddoway’s experience is mostly in business and securities law. On the other hand, she’s the one who’s admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court, the 7th and 9th U.S. circuit courts and Washington’s and three other states’ supreme courts. She’s also a past president of the Federal Bar Association.
It would be nice to examine actual appellate court decisions by both candidates, but in the absence of that, we rely heavily on the impressions they’ve made on other professionals. For this important judicial post, which will be decided Aug. 17, Siddoway is the better choice.
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